To Kill A Mockingbird

 

Sometimes you miss things. I read a lot; it got me through the hell of junior high, the self-loathing of high school, the confusion of college, and all the crap in between. And while I do re-read books (Gravity's Rainbow three times so far, Misery about 16 kajillion), the sheer number of hours spent holed up in my room scanning pages means I've covered a decent share of literary ground. But still—you miss things. There are gaps in my education, and Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the larger ones.

It's understandable, I guess. Most people get Mockingbird out of the way when they're young. It isn't a children's book, and I think labeling it "young adult" is ignoring its timelessness, but it does get assigned in a lot of classrooms; its main themes (tolerance, respect) and straightforward style make it a perfect novel for people just figuring out how the world works. I went through a lot of standards in a decade's worth of English classes (Huck Finn, Jane Eyre, A Separate Peace, etc.), but Mockingbird was never one of them. Until now, I never had any reason to seek it out.

I'd also never seen the film adaptation with Gregory Peck, and that's a bit harder to explain. I wasn't avoiding it, of course; the only movie I've ever actively avoided in my life, as opposed to just not bothering with, was Batman And Robin, and I had that rancid little cherry popped a year ago. To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic. An AFI-listed, montage-worthy work of art. Admitting you've never watched it is like saying you appreciate the idea of puppies, but you're not all that interested in spending time with the real thing.

That doesn't change the fact that before last Saturday, I'd never seen Peck taking aim at a rabid dog, Brock Peters condemning himself by admitting to an act of kindness, or Robert Duvall hiding in the shadows like a boogeyman lonely for a closet. I have no idea how this happened, but rest assured, I have top men working on the problem right now. Top men.

Even with all my ignorance (and I've got tons of the stuff), I still knew the basics of the story going in. It's set in the mid-1930s, and the whole thing is told by a little girl named Scout, a stand-in for the grown-up Harper Lee. She has a brother named Jem, and they've got an odd friend named Dill (Truman Capote!); together, they get into all sorts of mischief, including bugging the neighborhood shut-in, Boo Radley. Scout and Jem's father is a widower named Atticus, and he works as a lawyer in town. One summer, a black man is accused of raping a white woman, and Atticus is called in to defend him. The black man is innocent, but he's convicted anyway, because of skin color and his accuser's race.

Here's where I got fuzzy—I thought maybe there was a lynching, because I knew there was a bit when Atticus has to talk down a group of angry townsfolk. And I knew someone made a speech about how killing a mockingbird is a sin, because it doesn't do anything but sing and make people glad.

Well, the blanks are filled in now, and I'm happy for it. Neither the original novel nor the film version of Mockingbird held any huge surprises, but that isn't really the point. The point is to tell us the things we already know but are occasionally hard-pressed to remember: Change doesn't happen overnight, and injustice occurs in spite of the best efforts of good men and women, but people can learn to do better. Especially children.

Initially, I'd planned to do this essay as a rip-off of Tasha's Book Vs. Film series. After reading the book and seeing the movie, though, I don't think I can. The source and the adaptation are close in plot and, most importantly, in tone, enough so that it's impossible to separate them without doing a point-by-point summary. That would be a mean, dull trick. The best critics can describe beauty without dissecting it, but I'm not one of them; the most I can do is appreciate, and hope at least a little of that appreciation comes across.

One of the things that impressed me in Lee's novel is the narration. Scout may be a surrogate, but being true to the perspective of an 8-year-old is tricky business, no matter how closely you relate to them. Mockingbird hits just the right balance; Scout is never overly innocent, but her descriptions of events she doesn't really understand gives the book an extra dimension. Here's an early description Scout gives of all her father's failings:

 

Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected on his manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothing Jem or I could say about him when our classmates said, "My father—"

 

Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jem wanted to tackle him, Atticus would say, "I'm too old for that, son."

Our father didn't do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.

It's always difficult writing about a character you want the reader to admire; if the people around him spend their time talking about how wonderful someone is is, he has to be pretty damn wonderful, or he runs the risk of coming off worse than he would've if he'd received no praise at all. Here, Lee takes the opposite tack. One of the ongoing themes of the novel is Scout and Jem's gradual appreciation of their father. Readers aren't likely to question Atticus' quality, but having him so thoroughly underappreciated by his own children makes him (and them) more likeable.

Scout's naïveté also serves as a filter for Mockingbird's most dramatic plotline. Lee reveals more about Atticus and Tom Robinson (the man falsely accused of rape) in fragments as Scout goes through school and summer; she gets in fights defending her father's name, people in town sometimes shout things at her and Jem, but she's never really involved in anything right up until the trial itself. There's a constant sense of important events happening just outside the line of sight. That acts as a hook, and when things finally do come to a head, readers probably won't feel like they were forced to care.

That trial is a wonder in both versions. In spite of the stakes, and even though the whole town is present, there aren't any theatrics or grandstanding. If you've seen enough movies with courtrooms, you get certain expectations; there'll be lots of shouting, last-minute reveals, maybe somebody jumping over a table. But this is something else. Atticus makes a solid case for his client, even tricking the accusing parties into a lie, but it doesn't matter. While he's being cross-examined by the prosecutor, Tom lets slip that he felt sorry for Mayella, the woman who claims he raped her. It's a horrible moment, especially on film—Brock Peters' face freezes. Just admitting that he pitied a white woman makes everything else irrelevant.

Peters only has a couple of scenes in Mockingbird, but he makes the most of them. As does the rest of the cast; I'd have a hard time thinking of a movie that does a better job of getting the right actors for the source material. The children are great, always a tough thing—Mary Badham makes a terrific Scout, all elbows and scowls. Boo Radley is Robert Duvall's first film role. He barely speaks a line, but just the look of him, and the way he moves, is enough. (To be honest, I thought James Anderson was too much of a movie-hick to really be convincing as Bob Ewell, but acting-wise, he's fine.)

And then there's Gregory Peck as Atticus. There's isn't much to say that wouldn't sound hyperbolic. It probably isn't the greatest performance ever caught on film, but it's up there. Atticus is the moral center of the story, a great man embarrassed by his greatness, awkward but loving with his children, and determined to do the right thing even if it means fighting battles that he can't win. Peck has an inherent dignity onscreen that fits the character, and of course he has that voice, but what I appreciated the most in his work were the little things. I liked how his hair never sat properly on his head, the look of a man who puts himself together as best he can, but doesn't have a knack for it. I liked how in the courtroom, he was competent but never hugely charismatic; movie lawyers always know just how to stand and just where to pause, but while Peck's delivery isn't clumsy, he off just enough that the human being is constantly visible behind the speeches. And I liked a small moment, one that isn't in the book, that catches Atticus on the porch listening to Scout and Jem talking about their dead mother. The look on Peck's face is heartbreaking.

I said I was impressed by the narration of the novel, and I am, but it's more than that. The book and movie share a certain quality that stays with me, even now. I think it's something to do with grace. There's a deep sadness in Mockingbird that I wasn't expecting; part of it's the tragedy of Tom Robinson, and part of it's knowing that Atticus lost his wife and never remarried. Part of it is the ending moment between Scout and Boo. For a moment, she understands him. There's a lovely passage in the book where she imagines what it must've been like to look out his window and watch the children coming and going, the games they played and the fights they got into. Like her father once told her, she can put herself in his shoes. And then Boo goes back inside his house, and she never sees him again.

There's wisdom in that, an understanding of how life works. How it can be wonderful and terrible at the same time, and how the only way to get by is to do your best to be kind and take what comes. I can't imagine a better thing to learn when you're young, and I wish I'd gotten around to the book and the movie sooner. But I'm glad I finally did.

There's no shortage of great scenes in Mockingbird—"Stand up, your father's passing" made me cry—but there's a moment that got to me more than the others. I was wrong about the near-lynch scene; it isn't Atticus who calms the farmers down, it's Scout, who doesn't even realizing she's doing it. Once the crisis passes and everybody else has gone home, Atticus settles in for the night. He's got a chair set up on the front steps of the jail, and a lamp next to him for reading. Something about that, about him sitting there with an open book in that small circle of light… it made me feel a little better. About everything.